Gender Segregation and French Laïcité

The small town of La Verpillière, near Lyon in central France, caused a national uproar when it opened its municipal pool during off-hours for a “women’s only” swimming session. Critics immediately argued that by accomodating the town’s Turkish (read Muslim) minority, the town had violated France’s code of “laïcité,” or separation of government and religion. The only problem being that the session was organized by the town’s outreach services, not the Turkish community, and the participants were women of all religions (and perhaps more significantly, according to the organizers, of all ages), many of whom had refrained from using the pool in the presence of men due to modesty.

The incident has taken on national proportions, in part due to the snowball effect of another municipality putting its gymnasium off-limits to men for an inter-mosque women’s basketball tournament. (That event was eventually cancelled in the face of public opposition.) Fadela Amara, a government official in charge of urban affairs, discouraged La Verpillière from making the practice recurring, citing the inequality of chances it might create between the genders. That’s the same kind of debate I’ve seen raised regarding gender-separate public schools in the States, and I’m pretty sure (although I’ve been an expat for a while, now) that a city closing its gym to one gender or another to accomodate a religious community would probably cause some uproar Stateside, too. But what’s interesting is the degree to which the latter (religious) question has cause such a hair trigger reaction to the former (gender equality) question.

On a broader level, Europe’s growing immigration backlash is no longer just code for anti-Muslim, anti-Arab or anti-African prejudice, since it’s increasingly effecting the growing Latin American immigrant community as well. Significantly, the loudest reaction that I’ve seen so far to the EU’s draconian immigration law (which will come into effect in 2010) has been from South American leaders, with Hugo Chavez going so far as to threaten suspending oil supplies to European countries in retaliation. (Chavez will be Chavez, I suppose.) Nicolas Sarkozy has made a European immigration policy one of the centerpoints of France’s EU presidency, and it will be interesting to watch how this unfolds in the future. It has the potential to become a real problem for a continent that bases its international influence on “soft power.”